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The Cardinals’ Dangerous High-Wire Act

Arizona’s explosive offense leaves little margin for error — and the slightest defects could turn a Super Bowl contender into an NFC also-ran

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

During the 2015 season, the Cardinals offense was the most magnificent display that the NFL had to offer. At a time when many teams found success with short, high-percentage throws, Arizona took more of an “Ahh, fuck it” approach to its passing game. Carson Palmer led the league in both average air yards per attempt (10.7) and completion (8.5) for a unit that finished third in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA. Head coach Bruce Arians was bringing a V–2 rocket to a slingshot fight, and the result was a string of opposing defenses turned to rubble.

Last year’s team was a culmination of the plan set into motion by Arians and general manager Steve Keim upon their arrival in Arizona following the 2012 season. Palmer, acquired for a handful of magic beans in a 2013 trade with Oakland, and wideout Larry Fitzgerald had fully settled into life in Arians’s system. The 5-foot-11 John Brown and the 6-foot-3 Michael Floyd had formed a buddy comedy at outside receiver that was potentially hilarious for fans but utterly terrifying for defensive backs. And after the free-agent additions of left tackle Jared Veldheer and left guard Mike Iupati — and a stroke of luck in landing running back David Johnson in the third round of the 2015 draft — the offensive line and ground game had been solidified.

All of that talent meant this offense, at its peak, could put on a show that rivaled any in football. The 2015 group averaged 30.6 points per game, just behind Carolina for the best mark in the NFL. Only Jacksonville and its garbage-time heroics had more plays of 20-plus yards (80) than the Cardinals (78) did last season. This unit torched people, going 13–3 over the NFL’s equivalent of a four-month Cirque du Soleil tour.

When it clicked, Arizona’s offense was a high-stakes spectacle, a weekly showing of Man on Wire — only its mastermind was a foul-mouthed Pennsylvanian in a Kangol, not a Frenchman wearing a turtleneck.

The problem with daring aerial acrobatics, though, is that a tiny slip can bring the whole show crashing down. And when it does, the wreckage is no less spectacular.

Arizona’s offense is a fragile ecosystem that can be disrupted by even the smallest defect. During the Cardinals’ 1–3 start, there have been enough of them to put the team’s entire 2016 season in jeopardy.

Arizona’s defense has been about as effective as it was last season, allowing 4.9 yards per play compared to 5.2, so Palmer and the offense are undeniably the key to a teamwide turnaround. That makes his absence Thursday night in San Francisco because of a concussion all the more troubling. Playing with a backup quarterback is more worrisome for the Cardinals than it would be for most other teams, thanks to the considerable burden their style of play places on a passer. Through four games, Palmer once again leads the NFL in air yards per throw (10.6). Given the Cardinals’ downfield approach, there are few easy completions in the purest version of Arians’s scheme.

The below screenshot is from a third-and-5 midway through the first quarter of Arizona’s 33–18 loss at Buffalo in Week 3. After handling a shotgun snap, Palmer takes a five-step drop, and his only receiver within 12 yards of the line of scrimmage (and 20 yards of the quarterback) is tight end Jermaine Gresham. Nearly every available option is at least an 8 out of 10 on the “Holy shit, what a throw” scale.

Unfortunately for Arizona, this season Palmer has looked more like the player he was during his disaster of an NFC championship game than the guy he was throughout the bulk of his MVP-worthy 2015 campaign. Defenses have been content to sit back with two high safeties and goad the Cardinals into a dink-and-dunk life. Last Sunday, the Rams played most of their 17–13 win over Arizona using that approach, and on the below second-and-10, both the outside and slot cornerbacks drop deeper than might be expected in Cover 2. That distribution of defenders leaves Palmer with an extremely tough throw, one that’s just off-target enough to miss Jaron Brown for a big gain.

Accuracy issues have played a part in Palmer’s woes, but his decision-making is more culpable than his arm. The structure of the Cardinals’ route combinations can be downright beautiful to football and geometry nerds alike; many of Arians’s plays — such as this Cover 2 buster to J.J. Nelson with John Brown’s seam route holding the safety in place and Fitzgerald sucking the corner toward the flat—can thwart coverages based solely on the distribution of the receivers.

The confidence Palmer has in the offense’s ability to win by design can have a downside, though, as it sometimes leads him to get tunnel vision and lock on to his pre-snap option. This makes already-difficult passing attempts even tougher. As he sets his sights on John Brown slicing across the field in the GIF below, Palmer never even considers the presence of Bills safety Corey Graham. This was one of three dropped interceptions in a game that Palmer finished with four picks.

Palmer’s interception in the end zone in last week’s loss to the Rams was another entry in the early-decision blues collection he’s put together at the start of this season. When Palmer spots the single-high safety in this play, he makes up his mind. Thanks to the cushion that cornerback Trumaine Johnson gives John Brown, the receiver has barely gotten even with the defender when Palmer unloads. Arizona’s insistence on taking downfield shots at every turn, even as teams dare it to attack underneath, has it tumbling toward life as an NFC also-ran.

One potential explanation for why Palmer has been hesitant to cycle from his early-progression heaves to his checkdown options may be the struggles that Arizona has experienced up front. Despite their all-or-nothing passing mentality, the Cardinals finished fifth in adjusted sack rate last season. Through four games this year, they’re ranked 23rd. Playing the Bills (and allowing five sacks) without starting guard Evan Mathis contributed to that, but even the starters have had issues keeping Palmer clean.

Because the Cardinals’ deep approach forces Palmer to hang on to the ball, Arizona is particularly susceptible to stunts along the line that would develop too slowly to work against quick-strike passing games. Both the Bills and Rams used a combination of twists (below) and slanting defensive linemen to create confusion among a line that’s clearly having communication issues. Aaron Donald’s drive-ending strip sack in the third quarter last Sunday also involved him darting from one gap to another; it completely disrupted the Cardinals’ pass-protection rules.

Having less time to throw has prevented Palmer from moving through his options and finding underneath receivers (like the wide-open Gresham on the interception by Trumaine Johnson), but that hasn’t been the only problem. Last season, Palmer showed an excellent ability to move around in the pocket and extend plays. With Fitzgerald working as his top target, backbreaking completions when things looked doomed became the norm. With Palmer’s pockets crumbling faster and more completely this fall, that element of the Cardinals offense has been virtually nonexistent in 2016.

Arizona’s offense has also struggled in the red zone, but for a team that put up as many points as the Cardinals did last year, that strangely isn’t all that new. Without chunk plays available, Arizona has a tendency to stumble when the field shrinks. Palmer’s been worse in that regard this year (only six quarterbacks with at least 10 red zone attempts have a worse completion percentage than Palmer’s 44.0), but he barely completed half of his throws in that area (51.2 percent) last season and Arizona finished 12th in touchdowns per red zone drive.

The difference this year is what the Cardinals have done on their way to the goal line. After finishing first in yards per drive last season (38.6), according to Football Outsiders’ drive stats, Arizona sits at 16th (31.0) in 2016, and a year after leading the NFL in three-and-out percentage (14.9), the unit is a putrid 21st (22.9). So far, with a slide from Palmer and more leaks up front, the Cards are far from the offense they were a year ago. The question now is whether they have the solutions — and time — to turn it around.

Throughout the loss to the Rams, Arizona’s offense showed glimpses of its 2015 brilliance. With all those receivers and even a slightly diminished version of Palmer, the Cardinals still have enough talent to look petrifying a few times every quarter.

Arizona managed 420 total yards against the Los Angeles defense, but it managed to turn two promising drives into field goal letdowns while also turning the ball over four times on plays that began in Rams territory. Its central issues don’t seem beyond repair. The offensive line features three new starters (center A.Q. Shipley, right guard Mathis, and right tackle D.J. Humphries) and could certainly coalesce as the season goes on. Palmer’s problems appear to be more about decision-making than his ability as a passer, so it’s possible that September was nothing more than just a blip on the radar.

On the other hand: The Cardinals are digging themselves into a hole that might already be too deep to climb out of. They’re 1–3 and facing a Palmer-less trip to San Francisco, which means that a 1–4 start is a distinct possibility. With an early-season docket that included the 49ers, the Patriots without Tom Brady, the Bills, and the Rams, this was supposed to be the easy part of Arizona’s slate.

After visiting the Niners, the Cards will embark on a six-game stretch that includes matchups with the Jets and Seahawks at home, and the Panthers, Vikings, and upstart Falcons on the road. With Arians at the helm and all of Arizona’s offensive talent, there’s a chance that this team is capable of going on a nine-game winning streak like it did last year, but that seems unlikely as it enters the teeth of its schedule.

When a high-flying offense crashes, the crater is deep. And the damage done by Arizona’s awful first month may be enough to sabotage its Super Bowl dreams.